Lecture at the Crane Trust & Visitor Center


George Archibald

Co-Founder and Senior Conservationist of the International Crane Foundation

Wood River NB - March 22, 2017


The Beauty and Critical Role of the Platte River
Threats to Nebraska Sandhills and the Platte Basin
The Evolution and Behavior of Cranes
Our Love of Cranes Versus Habitat Loss
Global Threats to Crane Habitats
Addressing Watersheds to Save Cranes
Effects of Agriculture on Cranes
Efforts to Protect Endangered Cranes
Questions and Answers

All images © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

Introductory Note

The focus of this NWNL Expedition Team was unique value of braided rivers as characterized by the Platte River. Our timing was set by the nearly one million migrating Sandhill Cranes, dependent on this flyway habitat. Our hopes of seeing a Whooping Crane or two were dashed, but from pre-sunrise to post-sunset, we marveled at the convergence of so many noisy Sandhill Cranes in their millennial pattern of visiting Nebraska’s Platte River.

This lecture at Crane Trust by crane expert and author George Archibald powerfully explained the importance of watershed habitats to these iconic birds. His first memory is of crawling on hands and knees behind a duck with her brood and being “appropriately imprinted.” Later, while working at Cornell’s ornithology lab, he was inspired by Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac  discussion of the crane:  the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia…. When we hear his call, we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution…. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history.

[NB: Ten minutes of Archibald talking of his own career and 6 minutes of his political views on North Korea’s cranes been omitted here, but is in the NWNL Archive if any reader is interested.]

The Beauty and Critical Role of the Platte River

I just came back from a trip to see all of the world’s 15 species of cranes with one of the members of the Board of Directors of the International Crane Foundation. We traveled to 8 countries, and the highlight of our trip, meant to be cranes, was a tiger family in Ranthambore National Park in India. A mama tiger came back from hunting to be greeted by a “love-in” with three 14-month-old kittens – a pile of tigers hugging each other. While in India we also ticked off the Demoiselle crane CC photo? and the Sarus crane CC photo?  on our list of 15 cranes. But this morning’s view of hundreds of thousands of cranes on the Platte when the sun broke through was gorgeous!  It’s always such a pleasure for me to come out to the Platte River. 

It’s great to see all the growth of the programs out here, all the wonderful old people like me, and all our new people doing such great things.  It’s so exciting for the group of 23 members of the Crane Foundation with me today. This morning we were at the Lillian Rowe Audubon Sanctuary, that was started in 1994, as one of the National Audubon Society’s most successful centers. Their mission is the conservation of land along the Platte, and public education.

This building is an education extension of the Crane Trust.  Their headquarters is down by the river, set up in 1978. While next year they have their 40th birthday, the Crane Trust was set up through a fund provided as mitigation after the big dam went in on the North Platte River. Its goal is to provide habitat for moving cranes, research in land procurement and also education.

The Platte River is transformed from when the pioneers came here. There were no grand trees then on this huge open plain with shallow water. It is such a beautiful place to come in the spring.  I consider coming to the Platte for the return of the Sandhill Cranes as the beginning of my year. At both sunrise and sunset the old banks of the river are filled with lots of cranes standing on them.

On the flat ground where there’s corn, likely there used to be water. They say the Platte was “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Beyond that little hill, we have what we call the Rainwater Basin. There are low areas that catch rainwater, and places where you can sometimes find Whooping Cranes. CC photo? Three years ago, I was so lucky. I found 10 Whooping Cranes at the Cottonwood Wetlands. Photographer Tom Mangleson was raised in Nebraska., but had never seen more than 2 or 3 Whooping Cranes. As a close friend, I took him out there and we saw 10 Whooping Cranes. They flew out of the wetland; landed in the agricultural fields; did some dancing; and finally fed on “waste corn.” Then they flew back into the Cottonwood Wetlands. The next day, Tom took his close friend, Jane Goodall on her 80th birthday to the Rainwater Basin.

Whooping Crane Pair Waiting for Food (courtesy Creative Commons).

Typically, there’s a lot more water there than there is now. The river’s dependent on rainwater, and much of its water comes from the mountains. It’s dry now but previously when there was lots of water in the Rainwater Basin it was  one of the great staging areas for Snow Geese, actually millions of Snow Geese. There were outbreaks of avian cholera. US Fish and Wildlife Service, that owns and monitors that area, would pick up these birds and burn them. If Whooping Cranes were spotted in the wetlands near the contaminated area, they would actually haze out the Whooping Cranes using aircraft.

One of the great dangers to the Sandhill Cranes is if we lose the water of the Platte River, due to climate change or whatever. There’s water in these rainwater basins where the water never flows away, but it’s just there until it evaporates. Should the Sandhills have to change from this fast-flowing river to those basins, they would face a risk of disease. From that point, it’s extremely important to make sure that the Platte River is running.

The numbers of snow geese are continuing to increase.  I just had a letter from colleagues at Colville Island in Alaska, and the Snow Geese have moved in there and driving away the Pacific Brant Goose that breeds there. This incredible increase in birds is attributed to agriculture, and avian adaptation to feeding on “waste grains,” which are now abundant in the southern part of our continent. So, what to do about that? The Rowe Sanctuary and the Crane Trust are looking at all these problems that pose great challenges in the future.

Threats to Nebraska Sandhills and the Platte Basin

My group was privileged to spend the night in the sandhills further north, where after the glaciers, there was great erosion of water on land not covered by plants during the first few years. Today there is much farming these beautiful sandhills in northwestern Nebraska.

It’s one of the largest expanses of prairies left intact in North America, and we were able to stay at the Calamus Ranch to see the dance of the Prairie Chicken. If you’ve never done that, please make a reservation next year to see it. Of course, there are threats to the Nebraska Sandhills too. The world’s largest feed lot is north of here near a little town called Broken Bow. All of those enclosures are filled with cattle. It’s apparently houses about $2 billion worth of beef.

We have all these changes in our environment. What’s the outcome going to be? Well, I am the eternal optimist. I know so many people supporting The Rowe Sanctuary and The Crane Trust and involved in the fate of this beautiful area that the future looks pretty bright to me. In many areas of the world where I work, there are only a tiny handful of people. Sometimes it’s only us that’s over there waving the flag for the cranes.  I want to salute some of the people that have been instrumental in the growth of your conservation program out here. Paul Johnsgard, perhaps the foremost ornithologist in Nebraska, has written many books, including several about the cranes.

Many VIPs help bring attention to the challenges out of here as well.

Central Platte River prairie chickens

The Evolution and Behavior of Cranes

Sandhill and Whooping Cranes are just two species in North America. The number of species of cranes on the continents is proportional to the size of the continent. Asia has the most with 8 crane species, Africa with 4, North America with 2, and originally Australia with just 1 – although, more recently, Sarus Cranes have moved into Australia).  Wherever they are, these beautiful birds are easy for humans to see, whereas many other wildlife species are very difficult to see. Cranes are human-sized, monogamous, and lavish care on their young. Thus, many cultures have held a very special place for cranes.

There are 15 crane species in the world. The most ancient cranes are those beautiful Crowned Cranes from Africa, that at one time were found all over North America. We have skeletons of them from Nebraska, so we believe the ancestors of the Crowned Crane evolved here in North America. Somehow these ancient cranes became the Crowned Cranes that moved into the other continents. These ancient cranes also roost in trees.  They have long hind toes to hold on to branches.  Then we had the cooling of earth and the evolution of the cold-climate cranes.  Because they’re not cold hardy, the only area they survived during the Ice Age was in Africa. Today the closest cousin to cranes in the New World is the Limpkin (Aramus guarauna) from Florida and other Caribbean countries.

The ancient cranes had variants of red on their head with muscles that can pull it forward or backwards to indicate their emotional status. Standing 6’ high, the Sarus Crane is the tallest flying bird in the world.  The Red-crowned Crane is perhaps the most beautiful crane in flight, because of its white primary flight feathers contrasted to the black.

Cranes have two parts to their life history, breeding and non-breeding, and during the non-breeding, they often gather in flocks (as you see here in Nebraska with the Whooping and Sandhill Cranes). But then these cranes soon separate into pairs and go back to the land where they breed. They drive all the other cranes away from their nesting territories. They engage in courtship dances. They make threat displays to other cranes to keep them far away, such as the arched threat of the Red-crowned Crane. In certain cases, they “paint up.” For instance, the Siberian Crane, most endangered of all the cranes, “paints” mud on the base of its neck in the early morning before engaging in its courtship dance, which leads to copulation. Basically, when they “paint up,” they’re putting on their makeup!

The loudest of all the cranes is the largest of all the cranes, the Sarus Crane. Its voice can be heard from a great distance. The most musical of the cranes is the Siberian Crane. When they do their “unison call,” the male and female are alternatively put their heads up and down, and they sound like a European police car, “Doo doo, doo doo, doo doo, doo doo…,” and on and on they go. They mate. The female stands with her wings stiffly held while the male jumps up, flapping his wings, maintaining a position to mate. Wetlands are the prerequisite for successful breeding of most species of cranes across vast expanses of habitat. Out in the middle of a wetland, usually in a secluded place, the male and female assist each other in constructing a platform nest.  They typically lay two eggs a couple of days apart, and hatching is sometimes a couple of days apart.

The chicks grow extremely rapidly, supporting by parental care from both the male and the female. A little sarus crane, about 4 or 5 inches when it hatches, will stand 5 to 6 feet in three months.  That very rapid growth rate is supported by meals of live animals, predominately from their wetland habitats. 

Pair of sandhill cranes with chick

Our Love of Cranes Versus Habitat Loss

Cranes are endeared to cultures throughout the world.  Australia’s aboriginals believe that the first native crane was a beautiful maiden famous for her dancing. In Beijing’s Forbidden City, statues of cranes and turtles indicate good life, good luck and one life.  In Vietnam, your spirit is carried to heaven on the wings of Sarus Cranes. In Japan, many cranes on kimonos and statues at a wedding bring long life and happiness.

On a more practical side, Japan has been feeding cranes since the 1950s. That the population has increased from about 30 birds to more than 1,800. In such a heavily developed country with few lowlands, this remarkable recovery is amazing. India’s Demoiselle Cranes pose a competition for the Platte River, but they have only about 8,000 or 10,000 cranes in the wet area of Rajasthan. They have been fed for the past 200 years by the Hindu villagers with grain funded by Jain believers from around the world. Tibetans believe the Black-necked Crane is a sacred bird, and so protect them.

The rapid growth rate of crane chicks is supported by wetlands, so one mission of The Crane Foundation is to promote of habitat conservation. Even areas where the cranes are revered, they often don’t understand the importance of the birds’ habitat.  When we first started working in China in the late 1970s at Poyang Lake, the local people were shooting Siberian Cranes with cannons from small boats that they sailed into the flocks of birds. All around the world, wetlands are being drained to produce more land for urban development. Industrial agriculture, unlike traditional agriculture, often leaves very little biodiversity.

So we have these beautiful birds. We have all these problems. And we have our International Crane Foundation, established in 1973 in Baraboo, Wisconsin, with 237 acres for a captive breeding center, restoration of prairies and offices for 65 people working in 42 different countries today. Many of our staff are nationals working in their own country.  But we lack sufficient financial resources. To get our arms around all these enormous problems, we broke the world programs down into five categories, with a tremendous overlap. First, the big global issue facing cranes is us – so many people and associated development.

Yet, development does not necessarily mean that we’re going to lose our cranes. Japan and western Europe and the eastern United States are the most heavily developed areas in the world. But in Japan cranes are increasing; and in western Europe there are now over 500,000 Eurasian Cranes – competition for the Sandhills.  In North America, Sandhill Cranes in Wisconsin and Michigan have spread and now are nesting in Canada’s maritime provinces.  Our Whooping Cranes, down to 15 birds in 1940, have increased to a wild flock of about 350 that passes through Nebraska.

While we may be able to afford to find a place Whooping Cranes, the Japanese almost lost their Red-crowned Cranes. For 50 years, they thought they were gone. Then they discovered a little flock. The forces that almost resulted in loss of these species in Japan and North America are now converging on cranes in developing areas of China, Africa, India and so on. The great news is that even in very poor countries, if people care the cranes can thrive – as long as they have some habitat. Ethiopia has a taboo to kill birds, and so birds are very common there. If imbued with a sense of appreciation, even a very poor country like Ethiopia can maintain its biodiversity. That’s a global positive to think about.  Don’t be too pessimistic.

Red-crowned Crane (courtesy of Creative Commons)

Global Threats to Crane Habitats

1. Sea-level Rise: Whooping Cranes that come through Nebraska spend the whole winter on salt marshes on coastal Texas, in and near the Aransas National Refuge. If the predictions come true, in 50 years this this habitat will be covered by 3 feet of water – too deep for the Whooping Cranes that feed on animal food and blue crabs in those marshes. The Crane Foundation program in Texas called “A Thousand Cranes” has made a model of how much habitat must be protected between Corpus Christi and Galveston to support 1,000 cranes if the sea level rises three feet. Most of that is farmland today, so our goal is to get easements on that land to preserve it for biodiversity, not for development. (There’s a great deal of development along the coast of Texas.) That goal far surpasses our lifetime, but if we can put this in motion, maybe we save habitat for the Whooping Cranes.

2. Melting Glaciers: Wetlands in cold areas of N. America and Asia sit on top of permafrost. Right now, Tibet’s glaciers are melting, creating ever larger wetlands. Their population of Black-necked Cranes has increased from about 7,000 to about 11,000, probably because there’s more wetland habitat. But soon the glaciers will be gone and the permafrost will melt; and then today’s wetlands will be absolutely dry in many areas. Removing permafrost under wetlands is just like taking the plug out of a bathtub. High arctic areas are perhaps the best indicators of how the climate change is affecting are global issues facing our populations and values.

3. Flyway Habitats at Risk: Demoiselle Cranes fly from Mongolia across Tibet and the Himalayas at astounding altitudes to India’s Rajasthan and Gujarat where they winter. We don’t know how they physiologically do it. But these cranes only face the Himalayas in their autumn migration. In spring they fly far to the north rather than over the Himalayas, because it’s still severe winter up there when it’s their time to migrate. We just learned through radio telemetry last year that they fly to the west; circle the Himalayas going through Pakistan, Afghanistan, up into Kazakhstan; and then head east into Mongolia. So rather than an up and down migration like our Sandhill and Whooping Cranes, some of these Demoiselle Cranes take a circular migration.  Conservation of critical habitats along these migration corridors is critical.

In India, the Siberian Crane is the “lily of birds.”  Indira Gandhi would go every winter to Keoladeo National Park to observe their “lilies of birds” that arrived in the winter in early December. There were only 200. Then their numbers have started to drop. In 1979, they dropped precipitously after the Russians invaded Afghanistan. Because there were so many firearms among local people in that region of warfare, the Siberian Crane disappeared from the flyway. The last birds were seen in 2003. There are several migration routes of the Siberian Crane. One flock goes to Iran, one to India, and one to China. All birds breed in the far north, just like our Whooping Cranes. We lost the India flock just recently, and the Iran flock has been reduced to one single survivor.

Azerbaijan, just northwest of Iran, was one of the new independent countries after the Soviet Union fell apart. It faced widespread shortages of food, so the government decided to let the people hunt wildlife in the nature reserves, where Siberian Cranes stopped at wetlands during their spring migration. They were absolutely wiped out in the late 1990’s, because of food shortages for humans. Now we really only have one flock of Siberian Cranes left: the India flock resting in Afghanistan at Lake Ab-e Istadah. The last individual Siberian Crane came to India in 1993. It’s very, very sad.

Of course, there’s hope of restoring these birds if we ever can come to peace with ourselves. For instance, Operation Migration pioneered using ultralight aircraft to lead cranes along ancient migration routes, and more modern ones.

There is a breeding ground on the Arctic of Siberian Cranes and a breeding area of about 60,000 Sandhill Cranes (that are here today along the Platte River) that breed on the Siberian tundra, 2,000 miles from Alaska. On their autumn migration, Sandhill Cranes leave Siberia to fly way back to Alaska, down to Nebraska and on to Texas – the longest migration of any cranes on earth.  The Siberian Cranes, however, leave Siberia to go straight south to China to a single lake called Poyang Lake. One of our jobs is to bring all Asian nations together as often as we can to talk about cooperative programs to try to save the Siberian Crane and its combined flyways. All their combined wetlands are like links in a chain.

Addressing Watersheds to Save Cranes

One aspect we face is that we lose the birds. So our next way of looking at our work is to save our watersheds.

In the center of Africa, The Zambezi River flows eastward from Angola over to Mozambique. The President and CEO of the Crane Foundation, Dr. Rich Beilfuss, did his doctoral work on this river and associated wetlands. Africa has six types of cranes, but only four are resident. The Demoiselle Crane and the Eurasian Crane, counted by the thousands, winter in the northern areas of Africa and then migrate north. Two of the African species of Crowned Cranes are the Blue Cranes and the Wattled Cranes, whose main breeding areas are in central Africa’s great flood plains where they serve as excellent indicator species of the health of these flood plains.

Aerial view of the Zambezi River at sunset.

During the rainy season, river waters overflood breeding areas, creating wetland habitat. When the floodwater starts to drop down, the Wattled Cranes build their nest and lay eggs once they no longer have the risk of losing them to flooding. They then they follow the receding waters with their chicks. In Africa, only 5% of the people have electricity. In these emerging cultures, countries, their need to modernize means they need electricity. Thus, thousands of dams are going in all over Africa to produce hydropower. These dams greatly affect the flood plains and the biodiversity. 

In China and Russia, Rich Beilfuss is working on environmental flows, similar to those in the Platte River, regarding how much water to release to maintain the downstream flood plain and watershed ecosystems with particular habitat units that are rather well-defined. Since 1994, we’ve helped Dr. Sergei Smirinski protect these riparian flood plains where both White-naped Cranes and Red-crowned Cranes breed. This is now the first private nature reserve in the former Soviet Union. It’s one beautiful place, both for cranes and a mixture of Palearctic and Oriental fauna. 

Effects of Agriculture on Cranes

Another ecosystem that’s vital, very well known here in Nebraska where Sandhill Cranes are feeding out on agricultural fields. Should there be a change in agricultural practices, as is happening in many parts of the world with climate change, the food that cranes are depend upon may be gone tomorrow.  We’re facing this problem in South Africa, and one of the greatest problems is the expansive sugarcane in areas where there used to be rice. For instance, birds in Louisiana or on the coast of Texas can feed on “waste rice,” and muddle around in offseason But, if you were to replace that with sugarcane, there’d be nothing for the birds. 

In South Africa, Blue Cranes usually nest in dry areas, not wetlands – but they always must be near water. In very dry areas of South Africa, they rotate crops so that a field could be fallow for maybe 1 or 2 years and then they’ll put in a crop. Blue Cranes will nest in fallow fields, but there must be water nearby for their chicks. So conservation of the national bird of South Africa, this explicitly beautiful bird, depends on the right type of agriculture. That’s looking at ecosystems. 

Efforts to Protect Endangered Cranes

The Whooping Crane offers an answer as to how we can save species that are almost gone. In the 1960’s at Maryland’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, the first captive flock of Whooping Cranes was established, and now there are some at the Crane Foundation and several other centers. We concentrate enormous financial resources to breed these birds in captivity. Then we put them out to start additional populations in the wild. That way the species is not dependent on a single flock migrating through Nebraska.

Sometimes we let them raise their own chicks in captivity and then release those birds in the wild, with a technique we developed, called “costume rearing.” We’ll collect the eggs as they are laid, so that rather than just laying two eggs, one breeding pair will lay half a dozen eggs. We hatch the chicks in incubators and then use our “costume technique” to rear the birds to put back into the wild.  Crane chicks remain with their parents through the autumn migration and much of the winter, even through some of the spring migration. So these birds, attracted to our costume, follow behind a pilot wearing a crane costume in a little aircraft.

This is what Operation Migration has done so successfully in leading many cranes from Wisconsin to Florida. Now it’s what the Russians hope to do. A hang glider will eventually Siberian cranes to eventually bring birds from Russia to India and to Iran, depending on security.

The Russians have a beautiful breeding center now near Moscow for Siberian Cranes. They can produce many birds there, if we can just get the politics straight to bring them back.

Those are sort of the hands-on species things that we try to do. But another fundamental part of our program is education. How effectively we share our values with the local people is really where the rubber meets the road. Will local people want to save these birds?  How do we reach children in Africa that barely have food on the table to help them appreciate cranes?  In South Africa, there have been enormous changes since Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994.

Government resources are now redirected to rural development in the black communities, and much less money is going to wildlife conservation. But there’s a private organization in South Africa called the Endangered Wildlife Trust that raises money from the private sector for irrigation. This trust supports widespread programs for crane conservation by talking in the classroom talking crowned cranes, their dancing, and so on.

Crane Foundation doesn’t establish branches in other countries, but it helps strengthen indigenous organizations. Thus, for the past 20 years, we’ve worked hand-in-glove with the Endangered Wildlife Trust. We provide salaries for 3 of their employees and for our Director of Africa Programs.  The Endangered Wildlife Trust, in turn, raises money to support 5 salaries of crane people. All cranes in South Africa were decreasing. Now they are all increasing. We now hope we can apply this model to many other African countries we’re involved in. At this point, we have many black Africans well-trained and capable of going from South Africa into other countries working on education programs.

And mentioning education. I invite all to visit the Crane Foundation, if you’ve not already done that. You can even see captive Whooping Cranes in their natural habitat, and so much more! Our headquarters are open from mid-April to the end of October.

Questions and Answers

QUESTIONER  Do you have a theory as to why cranes do not inhabit South America?

GEORGE ARCHIBALD  I don’t really, because there are huge grasslands in Venezuela, but cranes just aren’t there. The distribution of many animals is a mystery, and often is related to disease, so there could be some virus down there that they can’t handle, but we don’t know.

QUESTIONER  Cranes have relied on the cornfields around here for 90 or 100 years. Before settlement, do you think that cranes spent less time here in the migration?

GEORGE ARCHIBALD  It’s likely the crane population is larger now than it ever was, because they have so much food here in the winter. When the river was wider and there were more different types of wetlands, there would have been sedges that produced tubers and seeds that the cranes could feed on. Plus there was also a lot of aquatic animal food in the wetlands.  So likely they fed on those natural food items before there were crops.

QUESTIONER  I know the politics are really bad in Korea right now, and have been for a few years, but what’s the latest for the cranes in the DMZ?

GEORGE ARCHIBALD  I just received a letter yesterday from my colleague in South Korea, and this winter there were 1,150 approximately red-crowned cranes wintering on the DMZ, which is wonderful.  There have never been over 1,000.

QUESTIONER  What’s their physiology that allows them to stand in the river and not get cold?

GEORGE ARCHIBALD  Well, they are cold hardy and their counter-current circulation in their legs counters heat loss by blood going back up the leg. Also, they have insulation through their scales. As long as the river is not frozen and the water is above 32º, the water’s much warmer than standing on the ground. Just think of a little chickadee sitting on a branch, don’t you wonder how they make it?  They don’t have cold water to stand in that is warmer than the air.

QUESTIONER  Can you tell us more about what’s happened with Operation Migration?

GEORGE ARCHIBALD  From 2011-2015, Operation Migration brought flocks of Whooping Cranes from eastern Wisconsin to Florida. Then US Fish and Wildlife Service decided that we have enough birds out on the landscape. Young in captivity are now reared by Whooping Crane parents, not costumed people. We release those young into the wild with older Whooping Cranes to follow and fly with. Thus, in 2016 and ’17, Operation Migration has not been flying with cranes.

However, Operation Migration is still alive and well. They’re helping monitor cranes already out there. Probably you don’t hear as much about them because they now longer have that program getting them from one stop to the next. We’re now letting the cranes raise and guide their own, so Operation Migration is currently monitoring cranes already out there. That’s why probably you don’t hear as much about them.

Thank you all for your interest in and support of our world’s cranes.

Posted by NWNL on January 15, 2020.
Transcription edited and condensed for clarity by Alison M. Jones.

All images © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.